One, two, three – what are we voting for?

Self-interest can hardly be expected to deliver anything to inspire us. In the case of the public debate over the forthcoming referendum on a change to the UK voting system for elections to Westminster, we are witnessing some of the worst behaviour that politics can produce.

 It would be easy to think that proportional representation is something new. But in 1867 you could have found John Stuart Mill promoting the Single Transferrable vote system. This was back in a time when the major debate was over a parliamentary reform which would for the first time grant any vote at all to a significant number of the working class, and half a century before that right extended to women.

 This historical context is not trivial. From a Spiral point of view, we have been in transition over the past two centuries. This started in the post-aristocratic BLUE order version of democracy, in which the sons of the wealthy would dabble in politics, and the names of Prime Ministers would often start with “Lord”, “Earl” or “Marquess”. Lord Salisbury (later Viscount Cranbourne) who was Conservative Prime Minister three times between 1885 and 1902 was a direct descendent of Lord Burghley, long-time adviser to Queen Elizabeth I 300 years earlier. The Conservatives, besides their traditional privilege, represented a prescriptive view of government and centralised power. Salisbury himself had opposed parliamentary reform.

 William Gladstone by contrast, who was four times Prime Minister between 1868 and 1894 and several times Chancellor of the Exchequer, was a Scot by descent and constituency, son of a merchant, and for most of his political life a Liberal, with strong libertarian views rooted in the rights and obligations of the individual. When sponsoring the extension of education funding, he opposed a state central control and advocated the distribution of money into local school boards. In that sense he can be seen as representing an opposition to the collectivist and centralisation tendencies, and carrying through the “free trade” economic thinking that had caused him and others to support repeal of the protectionist “corn laws”. In Gladstone we can see the influence of a more ORANGE way of political thinking.

 At the same time, Gladstone was active during the time when GREEN influences were on the rise. In 1891 he said “It is a lamentable fact if, in the midst of our civilization, and at the close of the nineteenth century, the workhouse is all that can be offered to the industrious labourer at the end of a long and honourable life. I do not enter into the question now in detail. I do not say it is an easy one; I do not say that it will be solved in a moment; but I do say this, that until society is able to offer to the industrious labourer at the end of a long and blameless life something better than the workhouse, society will not have discharged its duties to its poorer members“.  In this he was paving the way for the later (1909) introduction by a Liberal government of the old-age pension.

Many people think that GREEN forces in politics are more recent than this but they began at least as far back as when Marx identified the weaknesses in unfettered capitalism, and eventually culminated in the formation of the Labour party, which has brought a very strong collectivist strand to political life with their nationalised industries and health provision. In our lifetimes, the flip-flop conservative and labour viewpoints has defined political life, with the Liberal view sandwiched and squeezed. Blair’s view of New Labour was for a while close enough to Lib-Dem thinking to bring serious talks with Paddy Ashdown regarding a merger.  Gordon Brown and others may now have cause to regret their opposition, and Blair’s hesitancy.

 And so to today, when all who hold a Spiral perspective will be thinking about what Yellow looks like. And this provides a context for the opening focus on the coming referendum. What are we witnessing when we observe the current debate over AV? For decades now, Liberals and Lib-Dems have been campaigning for some form of PR. Their self-interest is obvious since they have only recently had a sniff of national power, and that often resembling their hands on a dagger pointed towards their own heart. But self-interested as it may be, it has the strong moral excuse of also being fair. 23% of the vote, 8% of the seats. We don’t criticise those who have been burgled as self-interested for wanting thieves brought to justice.

In both Labour and Conservative parties we see a split between those who have a short-term wish to protect their history of oscillating government. There are those in Labour who think that the pendulum will swing back to them because the new austerity is so unpopular. There are many Tories who think that Labour will never come back because the austerity is intended to be short-term and has been designed for the big hit to be felt at the beginning so that there is cash to buy back votes with tax-cuts in three years time. That could turn out to be a big gamble, depending on your view of our economic future. Regular readers know my pessimism on that score. Among Labour there are some who are hedging their bets, and who want to be sure that they get full value in the future from a dwindling core vote in the traditional “heartlands”. And there are some in both parties who are genuinely doing what they believe to be “the right thing”.

There are glimmers of Yellow in the Coalition thinking – even in its existence. But we are well short of an integral political conversation. The debate still swings between the polarities and there are many who cannot see beyond Cameron’s Etonian background and who don’t want to face up to the hard truth that it was not actually possible for everyone to be wealthy, nor to the general truth that one does not generally raise an average by lowering the top scores. In my view the worst feature of politics in my life time is the short-termism of government thinking, and this is really where the impact of self-interest comes home. Don’t tell the electorate the truth, and don’t support long-term change if it could result in electoral defeat. One of the most beguiling arguments against PR is that it will bring “weak” government. What they mean is that it will make it more difficult for those in power to manipulate decisions according to electoral self-interest. Yellow will not look like Blue-Orange or Orange-Green polarisation. Yellow will look like stable, centred and responsive management of the polarity in a world which needs a healthy blend of individualist and collective Values. AV may not be the best form that could have been chosen, but it’s a step in the right direction. That’s what we’re voting for.


*If anyone wonders where the title of this blog comes from, it’s a reference to Country Joe and the Fish at the Woodstock festival in 1969. “Gimme an F……….”

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